First published The Telegraph newspaper, March 2004
Perched high above Bordeaux, Bouliac is a perfectly formed French village. Cobbled pathways, trimmed hedges, a fine 12th-century church. There's little commerce, but it's all just so: a wonderfully inviting bistro with checked tablecloths and a huge open fire, a small boulangerie with black and gold signage. But whether you buy a crusty ficelle, stop for a steaming cafe au lait, or splash out on a £400-a-night hotel room at the Relais Chateaux Saint James that overlooks the main square, your money will end up somewhere in the Jean-Claude Borgels machine.
For this village is a creation of Borgels and his erstwhile partner, Jean-Marie Amat, begun 15 years ago when they brought the hotel to this then dilapidated but perfectly located place. Today, all commercial premises in the village have been opened, restored or are owned by Borgels or Amat. Bouliac strengthens the Saint James just as the Saint James puts Bouliac on the map.
Most successful hoteliers and restaurateurs harbour ambitions to expand, to see their concepts borne out in another city, or another country: thus chains are founded. But a significant section of the French hospitality industry is now expanding in another direction - acquiring and moulding entire villages in their image. Not in the traditional sense of hotel villages - gaudy, all-inclusive resorts where you are on a conveyor belt of compulsory fun - but a subtle, exciting working centre.
Of course it makes financial sense: buy a fine property in a rundown area for a relatively modest price, bring in the interior designers and create a world-class hotel. Then set to work on the village - you bring prosperity to the area, make it a more pleasant place for your guests to visit and your staff to live. What's more, any tourist money spent in the shops and bistros outside the hotel will end up on your balance sheet - and any extra patisserie from the day's batch on the high street can end up on the dessert trolley at the hotel. To cap it all, property prices - and therefore the value of your initial investment - might increase along the way.
This need not be about corporate greed - rather, it is often a personal odyssey that leads to much-needed investment into neglected areas. A complaint that is often levelled at Bordeaux, whether fairly or not, is that its vignobles can be dismissive of tourists. Head north into the Medoc, and you pass unexceptional towns and villages dotted between the neo-classical faades of Lafite-Rothschild, Latour and Margaux. Many of the owners do not live on site, but in central Bordeaux, or abroad.
All the more reason, therefore, to applaud the small number who recognise the vital importance of selling not only the bottles themselves but the lifestyle, the region and its beauty - to create a self-sustaining tourist industry and channel profits back into the land that has brought them wealth. Jean-Michel Cazes, of Chateau Lynch-Bages and Hotel Cordeillan-Bages, was named Decanter's Man of the Year 2003 for this very reason. He has his own "grand projet", the fruit of a long-recognised need to promote the region and a personal desire to turn the village of Bages, by Pauillac, from a few forgotten houses into a thriving food and wine centre.
"Three or four years ago," he said, "I was looking to expand my warehouse space, and asked my architect to draw up some plans. He suggested doubling the capacity of the current warehouse, which would have meant tearing down several empty homes behind the chateau in Bages. I realised I didn't want to turn the village where I grew up into a warehouse space.
"Historically, people owned a few rows of vines here and lived in the village, making small quantities of wine. One by one, when their children didn't want to follow them, they sold these off to the chateaux owners, and the houses went along with the deal. I myself left the area at 18, believing there was no future for me in wine, but now that I have come back, and had some modest success, I want to help the area. As tourism grows in the Medoc, so villages can start to support themselves again."
Thierry Marx, the Michelin-starred chef at Cazes' Relais Chateaux hotel, is a baker's son - and Cazes himself is a baker's grandson. Naturally enough, they started with a boulangerie. But Cazes' plans are far-reaching - he hopes to renovate the housing stock; to open a cafe/bar, two museums, an art gallery, a tasting facility and a wine shop; and to host a weekend farmers' market. Then there are his plans for a salle des fetes (village hall) for concerts and large dinners, an artists' workshop and a chambres d'hote (b & b). By the summer a large part of this will be realised, with all of it completed by late next year.
Rue Porte de la Monnaie
The concept does not just apply in villages. In downtown Bordeaux, Jean-Pierre Xiradakis has claimed the historic rue Porte de la Monnaie for his own, the road on which his celebrated bistro La Tupina opened in 1968.
"When I bought the building, there were 18 shops on this road," he said, "but one by one they closed down - affected, as was the whole of the Gironde, by under-funding, bad wine harvests and lack of tourism. Eventually, La Tupina was the only business left open. I thought about moving to a space that became available in Quartier St Michel, which has a flourishing antiques market and a vibrant community. But when a shop opened on this road that I wasn't happy with, I decided to buy up the lease and to create the right environment for La Tupina, to ensure it was surrounded by "commerce propre".
He holds out the fourth finger of his left hand. "If you have a beautiful jewel, you don't want to surround it with cheap trinkets. To make it shine more brightly, surround it with things that sparkle."
The jewels for him meant the Au Comestible epicerie, Bar Cave de la Monnaie and Pere Pinard wine shop. A chambres d'hote is scheduled to open this summer, completing the idea of "une rue, des restaurants, un esprit de vivre".
Xiradakis, like Cazes, is totally committed to promoting the region. When he is not opening restaurants, he is publishing guides to the city, its architecture, its walking routes, its vineyards. So is this a mix of altruism and commercial sense? It is certainly effective - other businesses are now opening on the road, and it has a bohemian-chic feel that would not be out of place in Paris. He is clearly well regarded: walking down the street with him proves impossible, as every other step somebody will shake his hand, show him some photographs, discuss a new shipment of wine or relive some shared joke.
Happily for his investment, Bordeaux is undergoing a transformation. Rue Porte de la Monnaie opens out on to the Garonne riverfront, where a significant regeneration project is under way, co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund. The aim of the project is to regenerate the riverside area using an integrated set of measures involving urban renewal, economic regeneration and social and cultural development. The overall intention is to bring life and investment back to the riverside; and to this end the quays are being reclaimed, five hectares of parks planted and large swathes of pedestrianised footways and tramways laid down. Art galleries, open-air cafes and markets are all planned over the next few years.
Expectations are high that Bordeaux is going to rival Madrid, Barcelona and Paris as one of the great cities of Europe, and Xiradakis is going to have a significant slice of the action. It will be well deserved, because this kind of urban renewal cannot work if it is simply the result of government initiatives and EU-funding. Public and private businesses need to work together to make the improvements sustainable.
La Tupina (0033 556 915637, www.latupina.com), 6 rue Porte de la Monnaie, Bordeaux 33800.
St James (0033 557 970600, www.saintjames-bouliac.com), 3 place Camille Hostein, Bouliac 33270.
Cordeillan Bages (0033 556 592424, www.cordeillanbages.com), Route des Chateaux, Pauillac 33250.